Philippines had been a destination on my bucket list for the last eight months and its a dream come true to experience it's magic.
I got my ticket to the Philippines thanks to an Air Asia flight sale that allowed me to get my ticket to paradise only for Rs. 10,000 roundtrip from Chennai. Without any thought, I booked the ticket and couldn't wait for the next four months to pass. Before I knew it, it was time and off I went to discover the land I had been enamoured by.
ARRIVING IN MANILA
After a long lay over in Chennai, followed by an even longer lay over in Kuala Lampur, I finally arrived in Manila at 3 am. My sweet driver, Boni, awaited me at the airport with a placard and a big smile, welcoming me to the land of stunning islands with so much warmth and happiness. I was quite groggy after the long journey, but seeing his sweet smiley face completely changed my mood.
Manila at 3 am was popping! I use that word because I have not seen many other cities with so much life at that time of the night. Small street vendors selling food and drinks, jeepneys wandering around (local jeeps used for public transport), people including women and children out on the streets and quite a lot of cars for that late in the night. We drove past the busy airport area and made out way to a small suburban locality where my homestay was located.
After a nights sleep in Manila, I set out to board my flight to the gorgeous island of Palawan. The traffic in Manila is as bad as in any metro in India. It took me 1 hour and more to cover a distance of 6 kms and I arrived at the airport just 15 minutes before my flight. Luckily for me, the flight was delayed (something that usually annoys me, but this time it worked in my favor)
I ran to make it to my flight and finally this hectic adventure was over, giving way to a few days of sun, sand and serenity in Palawan. As we approached Puerto Princesa, the feeling of flying over the gorgeous islands of Palawan was indescribable. I couldn't believe my eyes! I had never seen such tropical, island beauty before and I realised that after the 48 hour journey from India, here I was in my dream destination!
THE PALAWAN ADVENTURE
Philippines is a magical country. Not only because of its stunning beaches and landscape, but also because of its people. The smiles are so welcoming and genuine that you instantly feel one with the locals who are ever ready to help and guide you. Soon after arriving in the Philippines, I learnt that the most popular desert here is called 'Halo Halo' a mix of shaved ice, jelly and condensed milk. Everybody here loves it! And I think that pretty much explains why everyone is so welcoming and sweet :) I met a guy named Anthony, a local tour operator in Puerto Princesa who volunteered to be my guide in Palawan and helped me arrange my transfer to El Nido.
At 10 am the next morning I packed up by backpack and was all set to begin my trip to El Nido in a shared van. A journey that should have been 6 hours ended up being 10 as the cab guy needed to fill up his car for economic reasons. A bit frustrated and tired of waiting, I reminded myself that each place has its ways and this is the way here. Punctuality is not so important and going with the flow is! So I sat in my cab and patiently waited as it filled up, remembering to smile at everyone as the locals do!
The drive to El Nido was absolutely stunning! It was even more exciting and beautiful than arriving at El Nido, because by the time I reached it was already dark and I couldn't appreciate much of the beaches or the view. The drive though, was full of gorgeous scenery, hidden and remote beaches, roads that ran along the crystal clear coastline and sweet little cafes and restaurants.
EXPLORING EL NIDO: The BOAT TOURS
All the island tours in El Nido are very well demarcated and you are bombarded with locals selling you tour A, Band C from the moment you reach there.I usually stay away from any touristy activities that are pre-packaged but decided to go with the flow for this one. I opted for tour A and at 9 in the morning, the packed up boat full of tourists from all over the world set sail. We stopped at 5 different islands but honestly, I would have rather gone to only 2 and spent more time at each one. My favourite stops were the Coral Garden and the seven commandos beach.
Although the other stops seemed to excite all the other tourists on the boat and they took no time to follow the guides instructions 'jump now jump now' I took that time to stay on the boat, look at the magnificent rock structures, the aqua blue water all around me and absorbed the fact that here I was, at the stunning islands of El Nido. The boats deck was my sun bed for most of the day :)
While the tourists explored the lagoons by kayak or swimming, the boat men prepared lunch which is part of the package. Grilled fish, BBQ pork, eggplant salad, rice and fresh yummy fruits. It was beautiful to see how they prepared this delicious meal on the boat and then carried it to the beach for us where everyone devoured their hard work in a few minutes. Swimming does definitely make you hungry :)
By the end of the eight hour island tour, I was ready to get off the boat, but the adventure was not over! We arrived at the main port of El Nido but by 5 pm the tide was much higher than when we left. There was no beach visible and we had to put all our things in plastic bags and swim to the shore. As with any touristy destination, the water closest to the shore was full of plastic bags, garbage and algae. Although it wasn't the most pleasant way to end the exotic tour, our tour guide, Ronaldos words 'don't worry be happy' put a big smile on everyone's face and we happily waded through the neck deep dirty water and arrived at the shore.
EXPLORING EL NIDO: AWAY FROM THE TOURISTS
For the next three days, I decided to stay away from any tourist activities and packages. I hired a tricycle to take me to the different beaches accessible by road and I spent my time walking around, observing and exploring the lesser known parts of El Nido and experiencing a more local way of life on the island.
I requested my tricycle driver, Robert, to help me discover how the locals live on the island and asked if he would take me to his village. He happily accepted and in addition to taking me to his home, he also took me to the wet market, a bi-weekly affair where the locals come to stock up on meats, fruits and veggies.
After a walk through the wet market, we made our way to Robert's village. His wife Madonna and his two sons Robert junior and Rex greeted me with warm smiles and welcomed me into their village and their home.
It was beautiful to see how simply they live. No electricity, some firewood to cook their meals and a common water source for the village. All the houses in the village were built on stilts with bamboo and cane and consisted of the main house and a small kitchen which is usually outside the house. While each house was different in size, some of the commonalities consisted of beautiful plants and flowers all around the house; hens, dogs, cats, pigs and cows that happily coexisted; and warm and welcoming smiles.
The entire village was immaculately clean. Not a single piece of plastic or garbage anywhere other than in the designated garbage area. The locals are very particular about keeping the island clean, which is something I don't ever see in India, whether it is in the posh urban localities or the rural parts of the country. Here on the other hand, people are very particular about correct disposal of trash and that is absolutely fantastic! They love their land and do everything they can to protect and preserve it.
I visited the local school which was shut as it was Saturday but I got a chance to walk around the school and oh boy, what a view these kids have! To many they might seem unlucky because of their economic status, but I think they are the luckiest children in world to have a school that not only educates them, but does that is such an amazing setting! Blue skies, lush green mountains all around and a view of the crystal clear South China Sea! I wish I could go back to school and if I could it could definitely be Danant Elementary!
By the end of the village walk, I was left humbled, happy and truly satisfied that I got to experience this side of El Nido. Thank you Robert for welcoming me into your house and your village! You made my journey to El Nido complete and I will leave tomorrow feeling humbled and completely fulfilled.
The last stop of the day was drinks on Las Cabanas Beach and I made it right in time to experience a stunning sunset - the perfect way I wished to end my last few hours in El Nido.
MAHAL KITA (I LOVE YOU) EL NIDO!
After all the beautiful experiences I had in the last five days, it was time to leave El Nido and make my way to the Visaya region of the Philippines, home to the stunning islands of Cebu and Boracay and the chocolate hills of Bohol. I knew I was leaving a part of my heart behind in El Nido.
THINGS TO KNOW
Getting to Palawan:
There are sevaral direct flights from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan. Cebu Pacific, Philippines Airlines and Air Asia operate on this route.
Alternately, you can fly directly to El Nido from Manila. Although more expensive, it will help you save a lot of time if you only have a few days to explore El Nido. A local carrier called Swift Air operates on this route.
Some tips from my experience:
- If you're a solo traveller going from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, it makes sense to take a shared van as it will only cost 500 pesos. However, if you're a group of 5-6 people, I highly recommend taking a private taxi as the cost will me more or less the same and you won't be waiting around.
- If saving money is not your priority, then I definitely suggest hiring a private taxi even if you're a couple. The drive is stunning and there will be times when you would want to stop and take pictures or just hang out. If you have a private car, you can definitely do that, but it's not possible in a shared van as there are other passengers who might not be as enthusiastic about stopping as you. The private car costs about 5,000 pesos.
- From the moment you land in Puerto Princesa, you will be bombarded with tour operators trying to sell you the different tours in El Nido. I recommend that you don't book the tours in PP and instead wait to reach El Nido and see how you feel and when you want to go the island hopping tours. The price offered for the tours is exactly the same whether you book in PP or El Nido.
- Take a tricycle and visit Las Cabanas Beach located 15 minutes from the main town. It's a beautiful place to be at sunset.
- And while you're in the tricycle exploring beaches and other places, ask your tricycle driver if he'll take you to his village :)
- On Wednesdays and Saturdays, there is a local wet market where the locals stock up on goods for the week. Fruits, vegetables, all kids of meat and live animals (pigs and goat) are sold at the market. It's quite a vibrant experience!
This is it from my end. I'm now in Bohol enjoying a few more days of beach hopping. Next update from the Philippines will follow soon :)